WINDSOR, ON – Hours after removing their vehicles blocking a key U.S.-Canadian border bridge, protesters opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates continued to block traffic outside in the bitter cold early Sunday, while in the capital Ottawa, police were forming a new command center with provincial and national authorities that they said would help them respond better to a larger demonstration that has paralyzed downtown.
The tense standoff at the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, eased somewhat Saturday when Canadian police persuaded demonstrators to move the trucks they had used to barricade the entrance to the busy international crossing. Early Saturday evening, crews set up concrete traffic barricades along the highway.
But protesters reconvened nearby — with reinforcements — and were still choking off access from the Canadian side, snarling traffic and commerce. About 180 remained late Saturday in the sub-freezing cold.
In Ottawa, the ranks of protesters swelled to what police said was 4,000 demonstrators. The city has seen that on past weekends, and loud music played as people milled about downtown where anti-vaccine demonstrators have been encamped since late January.
The protests at the bridge, in Ottawa and elsewhere have reverberated outside the country, with similarly inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that truck convoys may be in the works in the United States.
An ex-Cabinet minister in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government took the unusual step of calling out her former federal colleagues as well as the province and city for not putting an end to the protests.
“Amazingly, this isn’t just Ottawa. It’s the nation’s capital,” Catherine McKenna tweeted. “But no one — not the city, the province or the federal government can seem to get their act together to end this illegal occupation. It’s appalling. ... Just get your act together. Now.”
Trudeau has so far rejected calls to use the military.
“The Prime Minister stressed that border crossings cannot, and will not, remain closed, and that all options are on the table,” Trudeau's office said in a statement late Saturday after he met with senior officials. Trudeau has called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society.
Ottawa police said in a statement late Saturday that a joint command center had now been set up together with the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They said that would beef up enforcement capabilities that had been limited by “safety concerns — arising from aggressive, illegal behavior by many demonstrators — limited police enforcement capabilities.”
Police earlier issued a statement calling the protest an unlawful occupation and saying they were waiting for reinforcements before implementing a plan to end the demonstrations.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency last week for the capital, where hundreds of trucks remained in front of the Parliament Buildings and demonstrators have set up portable toilets outside the prime minister’s office where Trudeau’s motorcade usually parks.
Surrounded by dozens of officers in Windsor, a man with “Mandate Freedom” and “Trump 2024” spray-painted on his vehicle left the bridge entrance early in the day as others began dismantling a small, tarp-covered encampment. A trucker honked his horn as he, too, drove off, to cheers and chants of “Freedom!”
But hundreds more arrived to bolster the crowd and settled into a faceoff with police about two blocks away, waving flags and yelling. While there were no visible physical confrontations, the crowd still controlled the road to the bridge, and traffic had not resumed as of Sunday morning.
On Friday, a judge ordered an end to the blockade of mostly pickup trucks and cars, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency allowing for fines of 100,000 Canadian dollars and up to one year in jail for anyone illegally blocking roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
“The illegal blockades are impacting trade, supply chains & manufacturing. They’re hurting Canadian families, workers & businesses. Glad to see the Windsor Police & its policing partners commenced enforcement at and near the Ambassador Bridge,” Federal Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne tweeted Saturday. “These blockades must stop.”
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25% of all trade between the two countries, and auto plants on both sides have been forced to shut down or reduce production this week. The standoff came at a time when the industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain disruptions.
In Ottawa, 31-year-old Stephanie Ravensbergen said she turned out to support her aunt and uncle who have parked their semi in the streets since the beginning of the protest. She opposes vaccine and mask requirements, and said it's important for schoolchildren to be able see their friends' faces and emotions.
“We want the right to choose,” Ravensbergen said. “We want the right to be able to do what everybody else can do.”
Protesters on Saturday tore down a fence that authorities put up around the capital's National War Memorial two weeks ago after demonstrators urinated on it. Some later chanted “liberte," French for “freedom.”
“Completely unacceptable,” Lawrence MacAulay, Canada's veterans affairs minister, tweeted. “This behavior is disappointing and I'm calling on protesters to respect our monuments.”
On the other side of the country, protesters disrupted operations at another border crossing between Surrey, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington, but officials said it was not blocked. A border crossings in Alberta remained shut down as well.
While the protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada's public health measures, such as mask rules and vaccine passports for getting into restaurants and theaters, are already falling away as the omicron surge levels off.
Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter there than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States.
Householder reported from Windsor, and Gillies from Toronto. Associated Press writer Ted Shaffrey in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.